Hong Kong breathes a collective sigh of relief as it learns that Education Secretary Michael Suen, the archetypal bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, will continue loyally toiling away despite having kidney failure requiring regular dialysis. More than the average civil servant-turned-government minister, Suen seems to have two operational modes: mindless devotion to procedure rather than outcome, and the relentless pursuit of the consensus/compromise/middle-ground ‘way forward’ that achieves nothing. The former, when he was in charge of Housing, Planning and Lands, saw the Central Harbour reclamation and the demolition of Queen’s Pier and the Star Ferry suddenly appear from nowhere and radicalize a new generation of protestors. The latter we see in such decisions as the partial reversal of the mother-tongue teaching policy, to let Chinese-medium schools pretend to teach in English and feel good, and the across-the-board reduction of student numbers in all schools, good or bad, when demographic trends offered the chance to shut down the most dismal institutions.
It is not escaping the public’s attention that, to quote the Standard: “Earlier this month Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung, 55, had heart surgery … Commerce Secretary Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan, 57, resigned after colon cancer surgery last month while Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah underwent emergency balloon angioplasty in 2009.” Four out of 16 official cabinet members have health concerns, and the gap left just by the one who has resigned is, we are invited to believe, halfway impossible to fill.
What do these people have in common? One characteristic is that they are all career civil servants, drawn from the Administrative Officers who, in their own legends, have delivered perfect governance to the city for decades. None of the five outsiders in the cabinet seem to be sick. (Some observers may beg to differ.) And the four are all affected by degenerative diseases – not interesting complaints like blackwater fever or something manly, like injuries inflicted by a grizzly bear. Could it be that years and years of air-conditioning allowances, transportation by chauffeur-driven car and general public-sector mollycoddling have finally caught up with them?
The political and media chatter is, typically, missing the point and droning on about privacy versus transparency. The real story here is about the administration of Chief Executive Donald Tsang: can it last out its remaining 14 months intact, or will a few brave survivors struggle across the finishing line on 1 July 2012 leaving a trail of dead and wounded behind?
The accepted wisdom is that Rita Lau’s deputy is not up to the job – another way of saying Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of HK member and erstwhile Canadian passport holder Greg So acquired the highly paid position simply because of Sir Bow-Tie’s favouritism-to-cronies appointments system. More provocatively, the accepted wisdom also warns us that the government faces a severe shortage of talent. To quote New People’ Party boss ex-minister Regina Ip: “With most undersecretaries failing to make the grade and large numbers of experienced officials retiring, the next administration will need to work out more imaginative ways to fill the many upcoming vacancies,” perhaps by broadening the net to include ex-ministers in the New People’s Party, should they not end up with anything better to do by that time.
With a population of 7 million, Hong Kong must offer a choice of hundreds, probably thousands, of people able to formulate high-quality policy, let alone merely outmatch the current dimwittedness. The typical excuse for not exploiting a bigger pool of talent is that all the bright and eager folk out there ‘lack administrative experience’. But this is unconvincing: what we really need is leaders who eat administrators for breakfast. The fact is, we don’t have a shortage of talent, just a shortage of unchallenging, bland and shallow shoe-shiners the paranoiacs in Beijing and the insecure and mediocre local ‘elites’ feel comfortable with. The next government will continue in this vein, trying to squeeze more and more ability out of the less and less capable ranks of the civil service while the better-qualified can only look on in despair.